Trapped Between the Scylla of Internal Rebellion and the Charybdis of Foreign Invasion

In his novel about the rebellion of Li Zecheng against the declining Ming dynasty, Yao Xueyin [姚雪垠] neatly captures run-of-the-mill political thinking on the part of arrogant leaders facing a challenge from their “subjects,” whom they would of course never for a moment consider viewing as their employers:

…李自成是國家心腹大患,如能蕩平,其他流賊自然容易殲滅,不足為慮。[Yao Xueyin, Li Zecheng {李自成}].

Li Zecheng is a disaster at the heart of the nation; if he can be suppressed, the rest of the flood of traitors will inherently be easy to eliminate without giving any cause for anxiety [my translation].

In the event, the Ming dynasty was trapped between the Scylla of internal rebellion and the Charybdis of Manchu invasion, a common historical predicament, given the positive feedback loop between the degeneration of governance in a regime in power too long, popular frustrations, and the appetites of outsiders looking for opportunities. Yao portrays Chongzhen, the last Ming emperor, and his top advisers as agonizing over their choices, which they naturally see through the dark lens of their zero-sum determination to protect their personal power above all else: thus, either to destroy the rebels first or to destroy the invaders first. How could anyone imagine reforming governance when the precious regime is facing an existential threat?!? Chairman Mao interestingly liked Yao’s novel, though this did not prevent him from falling into the same trap of placing his personal hold on power ahead of the needs of the society whose welfare he was supposed to be overseeing. Rebel Li had, according to Chinese sources (via Yao) some half million troops…a number that should suffice to prompt even the most pig-headed of national leaders to consider the possibility that his people entertained some doubts about his qualifications for the job, but, no, compromise, the sharing of power, the reallocation of resources, the punishment of the corrupt, resignation for the good of society were options off the table.

And why not? Was success not ensured…by their own superior wisdom and…worth? All who disagree, all who criticize, all who claim the right to independent thinking…are but rabble. 

The imperial emperor and the communist emperor four centuries later both call to mind Solzhenitsyn’s depiction of pathetic, self-absorbed Nicholas, last Russian Tsar, who was so hurt by the hostility of “everyone” as he struggled to maintain his own personal power at the cost of stumbling toward disaster.

On the very day of the February Revolution, Nicholas estimated that all would be well. After all, had the Duma, that minimal concession to the demands of educated society that some minimal voice be given to factions outside of the court, not just been dismissed?

[Considering] le fait que la Douma, principale instigatrice, venait de voir suspendre ses travaux, le plus probable qu’on pouvait escompter etait l’apaisement. [484.]

From the perspective of the boss, demanding servility, the new Russian parliament was no more than a nest of hornets to be exterminated. Its flow of innovative ideas for reforming Russian governance, organizing the war effort, paying a fair price to the peasants for their crucial grain…all that mere meddling. Consider Rodzianko, head of the Duma, with his endless advice:

Autoriser immediatement la Douma a reprendre ses travaux. Constituer immediatement un nouveau gouvernement–comparable a celui sur lequel il insistait dans son telegramme de la veille, et announcer sans delai ces decisions dans un manifeste, sinon le mouvement se communiquerait a l’armee, et ce serait la chute ineludtable de la Russie et de la dynastie….Son insistance pressante, son ton detournaient definitivement de lui.

The Duma members were, if truth be told, not respectful, and that, not the quality of governance or even the very survival of the state, was the issue.

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